There is a lot of talk amongst the Horrorati at the moment about Quiet Horror. A sub-genre that seems to mainly concern itself with timid vampires and shy werewolves whose worst crimes would appear to be dropping a thigh bone in the school library or letting one rip during the two minute silence on Remembrance Day. However, the subject of this month’s column is an exponent of anything but Quiet Horror. The work of cover artist, cartoonist and illustrator Bill Alexander is best described as Gibbering, Screaming, In-Your-Face Horror of the highest calibre.
Unless you’re a fan of the now obscure publications put out in the 70s and early 80s by Myron Fass, or a collector of less than salubrious paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, chances are you’ve never heard of Bill Alexander. So, just in case you didn’t know, to my mind, Bill Alexander is the greatest horror-comic cover artist to have ever put blood-soaked brush to gore-stained canvas, even though he has some stiff competition in Lee Elias, Bernard Bailey, L B Cole, Don Heck and Jack Cole.
Alexander’s main claim to this fame comes from the covers he did for a group of titles known as Eerie Publications. These were put out by the aforementioned Myron Fass, a former horror comic artist who became the king of pulp-exploitation quickies and fly-by-night publications. With titles like Weird, Terror Tales, Tales from the Tomb and Witches Tales, Eerie Publications magazine were the horror comics equivalent of the gore-ridden grindhouse movies they used to play between porn movies in the 70s.
Eerie Publications began by printing black and white versions of the pre-code horror comics from the 50s that were out of print and therefore in the public domain. They would slap a new cover on the comic and touch up the old artwork to make it more gory. This worked quite well for a time, as they were sold as magazines and not comics, so weren’t subject to the same censorship that had killed horror comics fifteen years before. After a while though, Fass began to run out of old horror comics to pilfer and the fifties fashions and styles looked a little dated by the dawn of the groovy 70s. Undaunted, Fass simply hired a bunch of cheap and hungry (but exceptionally talented) artists from South America to redraw the same stories with seventies hair cuts and a gallon or two more gore. Sometimes the same story would be redrawn up to three times by different artists to varying effect.
While there is still a lot of debate among horror comic aficionados as to whether Eerie publications are simply cheap knock offs or have a twisted merit all of their own, one thing is certain, the cover was usually the best thing about the whole magazine. In fact, it’s arguable that without the covers Eerie Publications would be all but forgotten today. While many fine artists turned in their share of stomach churning Eerie Pubs covers, (Chick Stone and Fernando Fernandez chief among them) Bill Alexander is without doubt the king of crepuscular covers.
Bill Alexander’s career began in the 40s supplying cartoon art to the independent record label Miltone. Following that he teamed with his friend Gene Bilbrew to create what was arguably the first black superhero strip The Bronze Bomber for the weekly African American newspaper the Los Angeles Sentinel. Given his obvious talent, it’s interesting to speculate how much of an impact being African American had on Alexander’s employment prospect in comics in the late 40s and 1950s. There were notable black artists working at this time such as Matt Baker, A. C. Hollingsworth and E. C. Stoner, but many of these artists were known to have lost jobs to white artists returning from the war in the mid to late 40s.
Whatever the case Alexander never drew another regular superhero strip after the Bronze Bomber. Instead he built a still dedicated following among collectors of fetish art. In the early 50s he began providing comics and illustrations to Irving Klaw, the man who would introduce the world to fetish art star Eric Stanton and go on to make a household name out of Betty Page. In the early 60s Alexander started to produce book covers, providing hundreds of titillating covers to soft core paperbacks in the After Hours line, which were put together in an editorial office above a New York Strip Joint.
At the end of the decade Alexander came to the attention of Myron Fass. In addition to the amazing covers he painted for Fass, Alexander also drew black and white illustrations for a variety of publications and on-going strips for Fass’s Playboy knock offs – Jaguar and Buccaneer. These strips were saucy and satirical in the same vein as Kurtzman and Elder’s Little Annie Fannie. The reading tastes of the general public had changed as the 70s dawned and Alexander’s work began to reflect that. Not only in the unbelievably over-the-top horror covers, but also in the hardcore work he did for mob-run porn publishers Star Distributions. Alexander provided covers for the Harding Files series that catered to every sexual kink imaginable (and more than a few that defy imagination).
In 1974 Alexander did his last horror cover for Myron Fass. In 1978 he stopped working for Star Distributors and moved to California to work for London Enterprises where he became the art director for their slick line of bondage periodicals. He continued in this role until at least the mid 80s and little or nothing is known of what he did or where he went after this point.
While Alexander’s many paperback covers have a lot of charm and are eagerly sought out by collectors, it’s for the horror comic covers that he’ll be best remembered. It’s not just the vivid covers and the subject matter that made them jump off the spinner racks and the newsstands. It’s also the sheer WTF nature of the subject matter. You quite honestly have never seen anything like most of them. One of my favourite covers is from Tales from the Tomb, Volume 2, Number 1. It shows a demonic gargoyle, who looks as though he has just been brought back from the grave due to his decaying body, sitting at a drawing board sketching out a comics page surrounded by decomposing and dismembered bodies under the watchful eye of an obviously undead editorial board. As if this wasn’t weird enough, the comic on the drawing board appears to have come to life and two green skinned arms are bursting out of the top panels on the page. In the centre of the palms of the grasping green skinned hands on the end of these arms, we can see see two blood thirsty mouths filled with sharpened fangs, which are greatly distressing our recently reanimated gargoyle artist.
For me, more than anything, what distinguishes Alexander’s work is the sheer brio and gusto with which he paints. There is a great sense of vivacity about his work and a respect for the subject matter. He worked on topics and depicted subject matter that were shunned by both mainstream artists and publishers, but there is never a sense with Alexander’s work that he would rather be doing something else more befitting a man of his talents. He embraced the subjects and reveled in them and in doing so I believe he created art. Given the nature of his work you would think that the sadism more than anything else would shine through in his painting. However what I gain from it is a sense of empathy and humanity. I actually find it quite life affirming.
But then again, I am a seriously disturbed individual. Maybe what I get from Alexander’s work is a sense that I’m not alone after all.
Speaking of seriously disturbed individuals I’d like to welcome Mike Howlett to the column. Mike is a comics historian, musician and the author of The Weird World of Eerie Publications which has to be one of the single best books of horror comics history I’ve ever read. I’d go so far as to say it’s a text book study in how to write a history of a comic book publisher. I have Mike to thank for most of the information about Bill Alexander, so I thought it only fair to get him in to say a few words about the great man.
Mike thanks for agreeing to join me in this month’s Injured Eyeballs. To begin with, I’d be interested to find out when you first became aware that Bill Alexander was the artist behind all those amazing Eerie covers and how you found this out?
When I was researching the Eerie book, I was paying a lot of attention to the other magazines published by Countrywide (Eerie’s umbrella company) and saw examples of artwork that was similar to ‘that Eerie guy’s’ style. Among those examples were the covers to their crime comic mags (Murder Tales and Tales of Killers) which, to my delight, gave cover art credit to one Bill Alexander. His style is pretty distinct, so I was able to identify dozens and dozens of Eerie Pubs covers and, subsequently, hundreds of comic strips, book covers, and illustrations over the years.
Alexander, like Carl Barks and many talented comic artists, worked in relative anonymity for a series of niche publications, but there is never a sense in his work that he is just grinding it out. Do you think that he took a pride in his work and conceived of it as more than just a job?
It depends. Many of his horror comic covers look like he put a lot of effort into them, planning his layouts and colours meticulously, I would guess. His charcoal illustrations for the Countrywide girlie magazines are among his finest published pieces (in my humble opinion); obvious care was taken. On the other hand, he did hundreds of illustrated covers for hardcore smut publisher Star Distributors and some of that looks like he knocked it out pretty quickly. He must have been doing a cover a day and some of it shows. Still, his talent was great enough that the artwork still shows signs of quality.
Researching a marginalised figure like Alexander can’t be too easy, I wonder if you could tell us how you go about undertaking a project like that?
Alexander proved (and still proves) to be a tough nut to crack. The common name doesn’t help! Most of the research that has actually turned up any kind of information has been his artwork. You can follow his trail a bit by seeing where he worked at what time. From Miltone Records to Irving Claw to Myron Fass… I haven’t had any luck (yet) finding any family members or friends, but it will be something I will work on until I am satisfied! Until then, I have to let his art speak for him!
In your book you say that you lose track of Bill after he goes to work for London Enterprises in the early 80s. Have you learned any more about his final days since the publication of the book?
Other than finding new artwork (I found three new Star Dist covers today!), no. I still have feelers out and might have a new lead right now, but nothing to report yet. Since the Eerie book was finished, I started planning a possible Alexander art book and I have been trying to compile a checklist of all of his published work (a daunting task indeed!) and I will, of course, try to find out anything I can about the man. A few projects have sidelined this research for the past year or so, but I look forward to getting back to it.
What, for you, are the qualities that make Bill Alexander stand out as an illustrator and cover artist?
Alexander’s Eerie Publications covers appeal to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the colors; he had an amazing palette! I’m sure he was being instructed to make them colorful, but he really produced some eye-catching paintings! His monsters are colorful, their clothing is colorful and the backgrounds are as well. I also really appreciate his sense of humor. Even on the notorious “meat-grinder” cover, he has a funny sign on the wall (Werewolf Meal, Inc. “All Meal No Filler”)! His lurid, grimacing monsters are all cartoonish and fun. They really represent the Eerie Pubs look for me… colorful, fun, multi-monster-mayhem! (Having a fetish-art background didn’t hurt with the requisite damsel-in-distress images, either!)
It is a shame that his work was often relegated to the bargain bin publishers. Let’s face it, I love the Eerie Pubs, but Fass was a bottom feeder and Alexander was just one of his pawns! If he had the chance to do some ‘serious’ art instead of cranking out the covers for Star Distributors’ porno books, who knows where he might have ended up. As it stands, we have an immense body of work to explore and learn more about and perhaps in time, Bill Alexander will get his due.
Thanks once again Mike, I couldn’t agree more.
If I’ve whetted your rather dubious appetites with this article and you’d like to learn more about Bill Alexander and Eerie Publications then please click on this link and grab yourself a copy of Mike’s book. Frankly I think you owe it to yourself to head on over there right now, you won’t be disappointed.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this. You know it makes sense.
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